TCM to alleviate strain on healthcare services

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) can play an important role in meeting healthcare challenges thrown up by Singapore's ageing population, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong at a global Chinese medicine event yesterday.

By 2030, more than one-fifth of Singapore's population will be over 65 years old, and about a quarter of Singaporeans aged 40 and above will have at least one chronic disease, he noted.

"Our ageing population will not only mean a heavier chronic disease load, but also one with increased complexity," he added.

He said TCM has the potential to help meet the healthcare challenges of an ageing population, citing acupuncture.

"Acupuncture, for niche areas like pain management and stroke rehabilitation, is now available at public hospitals, an important step to a more holistic approach to patient care," he said at the International Conference for the Modernisation of Chinese Medicine at Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The event is organised by the Nanyang Technological University's Institute of Advanced Studies and the Academy of Chinese Medicine, Singapore (ACMS). About 500 people attended the one-day event.

TCM can help to prevent chronic diseases commonly faced by the elderly, such as coronary heart disease, said another speaker, Singaporean TCM physician Karen Wee, who practises at Renhai Clinic in Neil Road.

"TCM has a strong culture in life cultivation, or yang sheng. For example, as we age, we get tired more easily. A Western doctor might say there's nothing wrong with you - you just need more rest.

"But a TCM physician can prescribe some herbal tonics to boost your vitality. We also encourage them to go for qigong exercises. Once we feel your qi (vital energy) and blood flowing well, chronic diseases can be prevented," she said.

At the event, World Health Organisation director-general Margaret Chan noted that TCM is a way to reduce the burden on healthcare services.

TCM has "pioneered interventions like healthy and balanced diets, exercise, herbal remedies and ways to reduce everyday stress", said Dr Chan.

Touching on the challenges of TCM research, Dr Chan said its medicine seldom acts as a single compound, but is the result of multiple ingredients working in concert.

This contrasts with the Western scientific approach to testing, which is about isolating ingredients and testing them one by one, she said.

On research, ACMS executive council member Hong Hai pointed out that many Chinese medications have been around for "hundreds of years" and cannot be patented.

"There is no financial incentive for big pharmaceutical companies to put them through the very expensive and extensive clinical trials."

He said observational trials could be a way around this. This involves collecting a great deal of information about patient responses to different medications and analysing them statistically, he explained.

In his speech, Mr Gan noted that more evidence-based research into the safety and efficacy of TCM treatments can help healthcare providers and the public make more informed decisions.

In 2014, the Ministry of Health launched a $3 million grant for TCM research, and six studies have received funding.

They cover areas such as acupuncture and the use of TCM to treat irritable bowel syndrome.

The studies are done collaboratively by TCM practitioners and researchers from healthcare institutions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'TCM to alleviate strain on healthcare services'. Print Edition | Subscribe